Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What triggers your midlife crisis?

He was the editor of our small town college newspaper. I was the Lifestyles editor. He was all hard news, always searching for the story that would excite people and motivate change. I was all frills and features, more interested in telling a story than shaking the tree. But he challenged me. He encouraged me to step beyond my timid limits and look beyond the obvious. My stories became more flashy and brave. He was brilliant that way, his lanky form always head-butting the tiny Southern campus like a wedge going into a steel beam. He had media internships that made me sick with envy, and then turned away from journalism, a bit, to dive into the ivy-patched halls of law school. That was the last I heard of him.

cliff jumperNearly two decades later, I was wallowing in my own insufficiencies. The writing career I was hell-bent on pursuing as a college grad – and did enjoy for a decade afterwards – was now tucked behind a wall of public relations bullshit. I was considering selling my soul to sales just to get away, a most gruesome thought, when I received a newsletter from my alma mater. My old college newspaper editor, it announced, had moved far beyond the halls of that small Tennessee school to found a human rights organization. He had become a well-known advocate for the environment and even published a book, becoming the only African-American to write a New York Timesbest seller on the topic. I turned to my husband and announced, “I am a failure.”

There was no contest. I was not racing toward any goal against any of my peers. My friend had gone beyond what probably any of us from that school could have, and I was riddled with jealously and guilt. Here he was charging toward that ambition and need to help others that always bloomed in his spirit. And then there was I, wallowing in a job I hated just to get a paycheck. What happened to my dream?

It is because of my old friend, who I have not talked with since senior year in college, that I quit my PR job and began writing again. I call that transition my midlife crisis.

Gail Sheehy in her book New Passages, calls the midlife crisis the “second adulthood.” It is, essentially, a second chance at becoming the person we are meant to be. It happens, some say, when we wake up one day and realize we’re not the young person we used to be, and that the “when I grow up I will do THIS” mentality is suddenly replaced with the “I am grown up and I never did THAT” frame of mind. Thus, some of us find ourselves at a crossroads known often as the midlife crisis.

The Chinese word for crisis is “dangerous opportunity.” Like any crisis, the one that happens in midlife – many say between ages 35 and 45, but really, life-changing midlife crises can come at any age – provides an opportunity for change and growth. Sheehy says it is a time to “stop and recalculate. … Imagine the day you turn 45 as the infancy of another life.”

For some, that may mean a new sports car or a new spouse. For me, it meant redirecting the career path I was on. (Sheehy would call that my “new map of adult life,” something she says we need to plot our course so we don’t get off track and do anything crazy, like date our daughter’s boyfriends.)

Last week I began hearing disturbing reports about my old friend, the former college newspaper editor who had recently been named a special advisor to the president. He was caught up in a flurry of controversy stirred by a conservative talk show host and old petitions and speeches on YouTube. In the wee hours Sunday morning, I read that he had resigned that high profile post. It broke my heart, not just for him, but for the advances he was making that would benefit not only the health of our planet but provide jobs our citizens so sorely need.

In my midlife revelation, I am grounded enough not to expect success on the level my friend was able to achieve. I suspect there are greater heights for him still. Because even now, so far away from those formidable college years, I still find myself learning from him.

Flickr, MacAllenBrothers

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